When I do "Trans 101" workshops for adolescent audiences, I sometimes simplify my transition into an explanation that I think they'll grasp: When I was born, the doctor looked at my body and declared that I was a person who would grow to become a woman. But I eventually knew in my head and in my heart that I'd grow to become a man. And I have done so, with some effort and assistance.
In these words I'm addressing an unspoken question that lingers in the air: But how do you know you're a man?
I've been meditating on this query lately, and I keep coming to the same counter-question: How does any male-identified person know he is a man? And does my answer really diverge greatly from how many men, trans or cisgender, would answer?
Transgender people are often said to have a "narrative" to their lives; we're encouraged to see our journey toward recognizing our gender as a story with an articulable pattern. The truth is, though, that everyone's gender is a story; it's just that trans folks are more likely to be -- perhaps I could say "are given the gift of having to be" -- aware of it.
The story of becoming a man, a woman, or a person of any other gender often follows aspects of that most instinctual of story arcs: the hero's journey. For instance, my personal narrative was one of effort in seeking a transformative goal (a quest), assistance (tools provided by medicine, law, and intangible emotional support), and mentorship by those who went before me (guides).
And my manhood was ultimately achieved through what could be considered rites of passage -- which is to say a similar structure to communal cultural tales of how one achieves cisgender manhood. It's simply some details that vary.
I do see one key difference in how all this plays out, however: Trans men make this invisible process disconcertingly visible by flipping the variables. While a cisgender man may be born with certain inherent potentials to physically embody a manhood that others will acknowledge socially, he's not necessarily imbued with the demanding drive, the internal compass, the awareness of the systems and tropes he's drawing on, and the deep gratitude concerning the specific man he'll be.
It's quite possible to reach cisgender manhood externally (for instance, by reaching a certain age or displaying changes in voice, facial hair, etc.) long before one reaches an internal sense of his own unique self -- and, further, before one reaches a sense of how hard he'll fight to be that self, no matter the costs or resistance. For trans men it's often much the opposite case.
Manhood is an accomplishment, an internal need and quest, for both cis and trans men. (The same could be said of cis and trans women in regard to womanhood, of course.) When we acknowledge this, the necessity and intelligibilty of questions like "But how do you know?" fades away.
Ultimately, seeing this will help dismantle one of the structuring cultural approaches to transgender people: mistrust. Mistrust that we know it's the right time for us to transition. Mistrust that we won't eventually regret transition. Mistrust that one's sexual orientation won't suddenly change by sleeping with us. Mistrust that when we say we're men, women, neither or both, we really, truly are.
I'll end this meditation with a response I sometimes give to that mistrust: Socially, we're all taught when we're young that just because there's something we don't like or wouldn't do, it doesn't mean it can't be fun or useful or important to someone else. As childcare-worker friends delightfully put it, "we don't yuck someone else's yum!"
As children, we learn a vital truth: To be decent to others we share communal space with, we must look internally and adjust our own instinctual "I personally wouldn't do that, so it must be wrong!" response. At the same moment, we're trusting that those around us are also sparing us from their judgments. This is something we as cisgender and transgender adults would do well to remember and enact.
In so doing, we won't simply be living lives of disingenuousness. This process actually changes us, helps us grow, opens our minds to ways life can be lived differently. It's part of maturing. It's part of building what we all need as humans: strong communities, families, and senses of self.